When was the last time you played Battleship? Yes, the game you may have played when you were a kid. It’s a strong metaphor for how we learn through not succeeding. Throw your mind back to when you last played the game…you placed your ships on the board, as did your opponent (you cannot see their ships of course, nor they yours). You each (in turn) gave a coordinate (i.e. D9) and were told if that coordinate is a “hit” or a “miss”. Misses get a white peg inserted at the coordinate and hits are red. Inevitably in this game you will end up with more white pegs on your board than red. Unless you’ve figured out how your opponent has placed his/her ships, you will be feeling around in the dark for a bit to find them all. It’s all part of the game.
However, when playing with a little person, all those white pegs can be quite discouraging. It’s a game of resilience, requiring you to learn something after each “miss”. It is a great way to look at missteps, even failures, because each one of those is not so much a “black mark” on your score card as it is a white peg signifying an attempt yielding new data. That didn’t work as you wanted it to, so what did you learn? For most of us (in the game of life) we tend to take adult mistakes and missteps to heart, giving them heft and weight that they accumulate by looking at them as failures. They then create their own “gravitational well”, especially if we are experiencing a series of missteps and failures, continually pulling us down (if we let them). It plays with our minds and makes us feel discouraged, even angry or shameful and is one of the reasons why we cannot sustain changes we are trying to make in our behaviours, lifestyles, etc. Unless we are mindful about re-framing, mistakes can make us re-assess not what we have learned, but why we are continuing to attempt something in the first place. It gives us reason to feel like a failure, discouraged at all the white pegs then like someone who is learning and able to see that each peg teaches us something. The game board is a metaphor for objectivity allowing us to re-frame events in our lives in a healthier way.
As adults we each have the ability, and choice, to look at things in new light, to see what we’ve learned in something that didn’t go as planned, rather than sinking into the feelings of misgiving, and possibly shame (it’s OK, possibly inevitable, to briefly visit with misgiving and shame, but not a good idea to make them room mates). Take a recent failure you’ve experienced. Beyond thinking “I am never going to attempt that again”, spend some time reflecting on what you learned. Breath deeply, center yourself and stay with the (less than welcome) feelings that come with replaying what was not your finest moment. Look at it with self-compassion (after all a mistake is not something we intended), play it like a video in your mind and find the invisible value in what went on – what did you learn? You may have learned more than one thing (or learned something and been reminded of a few other things you forgot). Once you have plucked the wisdom from this item, put your hand on your heart and say “I learned something new that I can take with me anywhere” and let go of the negative feelings attached to this memory. Re-frame it into what you learned, rather than what you screwed up.
They say the definition of insanity is “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. It would be like calling out the same exact coordinate over and over again in the game of Battleship and hope, with each turn, that miraculously the peg will turn from white to red. Not only will that not happen, but you are loosing potential each time by forgoing your option to try something different. However, we only tend to get to that state when we are moving so fast that we are not learning anything from our mistakes. Einstein has said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” and so the end to insanity (as it is defined above) is to first acknowledge our mistake. Take a moment to acknowledge, possibly even celebrate it a bit, and say “There you are!” because there is more value in acknowledging a mistake then ignoring it (as much as our nervous system would have it otherwise). To see the problem fully, cognitively, and to hold time at bay for a few moments to look at it as objectively as possible requires acknowledgement, not feeling shameful about it, but a sense of wonder, maybe even relief for being able to see it at all. Then, if you can (and this may take time), accept it (since you can’t go back and change it). Acceptance allows us to breath, to engage curiosity and to better see what lead to this point, because the thing we have to remember is we are not always the author of our own mistakes – sometimes life creates mitigating circumstances and we had no way of knowing what was going to happen. Still, we have to live with the consequences (both the ones we create and the ones we are given). Acceptance is the path of least resistance; it demonstrates we have learned something and that we don’t have to do the same things over and over again.
The Battleship metaphor has one last bit of wisdom for us, and that is to keep trying. One strategy in the game is to divide the game board up into a series of quadrants and check coordinates in each quadrant systematically to see what you can find on your opponents board. It is a considered and strategic approach, which is what most of us strive for in life too. However, after a mistake, many of us are drawn into full retreat. We quickly stop our forward momentum, maybe return to a past behavior (“insanity”) to lick our wounds. When we do this it is because we cannot see (in that moment) the other opportunities that are within our reach – we cannot see the other quadrants on the board. When we chose to look at our mistakes, not as irredeemable black marks, but instead as a white peg on a board offering us many other options inviting us to try again, we can more quickly figure out how to access more of our potential in a moment of disheartenment and look for success in whatever we are undertaking.
P.S. If you are really stuck, play a game of Battleship with someone in your life; it may help you to see your own “game board” more clearly.
“We learn wisdom from failure more than from success: we often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and he who never made a mistake, never made a discovery.” Samuel Smiles